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New detectors aim to safeguard vacant Schenectady-owned buildings

New detectors aim to safeguard vacant Schenectady-owned buildings

Fires from people illegally inside houses a problem
New detectors aim to safeguard vacant Schenectady-owned buildings
Nathan Armentrout, founder and CEO of CASPER Security, shows off a new security monitor Tuesday.
Photographer: Marc Schultz

SCHENECTADY — In the latest tool to battle blight, the city will install solar-powered security monitors in a number of vacant city-owned properties across the city. 

Several units were installed on Tuesday. 

“We’re going to do limited deployment in the city,” Mayor Gary McCarthy.

Schenectady has long grappled with vacant distressed properties and has been taking possession of hundreds of them to dispose of them. But remediation through code enforcement, demolitions and rehabilitations can leave neighbors vulnerable during what's inevitably a prolonged timeframe, McCarthy said.

Squatters often take up residence in empty buildings, sometimes burning them down in the process.

The new security monitors can detect fire and motion and will immediately alert neighbors and first responders.

Louisville-based Casper Security designed the units in 2015 to address fires starting in abandoned properties and spreading to neighboring occupied homes, a risk in older neighborhoods with homes built very close to each other, sometimes nearly touching.

“The city [of Louisville] wanted to buy an early-warning monitor and nothing existed like that,” said CEO and founder Nathan Armentrout. “Neighbors really loved it because they saw their city government doing something meaningful.”

Casper ultimately installed monitors in 15 homes for six months, culminating in over "100 successful tests, two real-life confirmed detections and zero false positives," according to the company.

The Louisville mayor's office didn't return an email on Tuesday seeking information on their experience and the device's efficacy.

The units, which can operate for up to six months without sunlight, cost $300 each and carry a monthly service fee of between $20 and $30.

McCarthy declined to disclose how many devices will be deployed throughout the city, citing the need to preserve an air of mystery to discourage unlawful entry. 

“We’ll look to ramp up fairly quickly,” he said. “We’re not expending a large amount of money from the city’s side.”

Schenectady has had its problems with fires in vacant city-owned properties. Officials and neighbors reported squatters at 7 Eagle St., which burned down last week. 

The cause of that fire remains under investigation. 

Assistant Fire Chief Don Mareno estimated a half-dozen vacant houses have burned since 2018, but couldn’t confirm how many of those had been started by people illegally inside the houses. 

A vacant house at Paige Street in the city’s Hamilton Hill neighborhood exploded in 2014 from an apparent gas leak. People were often spotted walking in and out of the abandoned home, and firefighters believed the explosion could have been sparked by someone who was in the house illegally.

While the number of distressed properties in the city fluctuates due to demolitions and rehabs, there were nearly 900 vacant structures citywide in April, and the city owned roughly half of them. 

The city's Codes Department attempts to keep the city-owned structures boarded up, but officials have acknowledged there are unprotected properties due to limited resources.

McCarthy hopes the installation of monitors will eventually become part of routine maintenance on city-owned distressed properties.

Over time, he hopes to link the devices with the city’s emerging Wi-Fi network.

The mayor said he may introduce legislation that would make the devices mandatory for all vacant property owners, including banks. 

“It gives people an option for what I believe is an affordable price,” McCarthy said.

Hamilton Hill Neighborhood Association President Marva Isaacs said it’s too early to say if the devices will work, and looks forward to more information. 

Albany, Troy and Syracuse also will be testing the usefulness of the monitoring devices.

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